I spent almost two years in North Carolina and still go back again and again to work on community issues. I find it interesting that many non-Latinos refer to the Latino community there as Mexicans.
The reality is that only 60 percent of Latinos in North Carolina are for the most part Mexican immigrants. The rest are generally immigrants from Central and South America.
American-born descendants of Mexico and the Southwest that was once Mexican and Spanish territory have experienced a long and difficulty relationship with the term “Mexican.” The term and its misuse formed part of the oppression brought to a people that became aliens on their own land.
I remember as a little boy going to Mumford Elementary School in central Texas that it was not all right to speak Spanish even away from the classroom. I remember the genuine fear of punishment as I communicated with my friends in the only language I knew at the time.
Another part of that intolerance was the use of the word “Mexican” as a favorite bad word many used to refer to a Latino. It was so bad that it became common for Latinos to try to self-identify using other terms like “Spanish” or “Latin” that sounded hollow to a jeering bully.
I am told that many Latino families prohibited the use of Spanish at home ostensibly to promote language assimilation to English, but in reality to limit as much as possible the exposure of their children to abuse by those who loved to lord over who they thought to be less than them.
Over the long term, American-born Latinos experienced a serious loss of language and history that contributed to identity issues and a diminished sense of self that to this day continues as an open wound. “Selena” the movie has a scene where Abraham, Selena’s father, talks about the difficulties of being a Mexican-American because among other things, in Mexico you are seen as an American and in America as a Mexican.
The Chicano Movement attempted to address these shortcomings through language and cultural activities that reminded people of their roots. Among these were the national celebrations associated with Cinco de Mayo and Mexican Independence Day on Sept. 16.
However, it was with the coming of the great Latino immigrant wave that the American-born Latino identity landscape began to change. A great majority of these immigrants were Mexicans that brought with them the Spanish language and a sense of history and nationality that resonates with their descendants in the United States.
Being called Mexican is recognition of a people that modeled a way of life that is a credit to language, family, tradition and hard work. It is no longer the bad word that so many Latinos sought to escape but a welcomed term associated with identity and wholeness.
This Sixteenth of September celebration, take a little time to reflect on the return of the term “Mexican” that denotes a healthy psyche so necessary for the exercise of democracy in America today. Through the Latino immigrant, Latino Americans are coming to terms with the great question of “who am I” and are laying the foundation for effective participation in all parts of American life especially the education challenge and political leadership.
The term “Mexican” is both a statement of nationality as well as a cultural state of mind for the Mexican American in the Southwest and around the country. Given the new reality of personal and group identity as Latinos, you can call me “Mexican.”